Could a low carb diet relieve the pain of knee osteoarthritis?

diet and knee osteoarthritis

We know all about the pros and cons of a low-carb diet: on the plus side, it’s the best way to kickstart fast weight loss – and weight loss in the best places, such as the abdomen. It also increases the levels of HDL cholesterol (the ‘good’ cholesterol), whilst decreasing blood sugar and insulin levels, and may even help lower blood pressure.

But according to a new report from the University of Alabama, which has been published in the Pain Medicine journal, there may be another incentive to dump the carbs, particularly if you have knee problems: a randomised controlled study they conducted recently points to the possibility that a low-carb diet could relieve pain for people who have knee osteoarthritis, particularly if you’re up there in years.

While there are medical and procedural ways to deal with knee OA, they’re costly to health bodies and can bring on side-effects for the patient – which means that the global medical community is now focusing attention on the beneficial links between a low carb diet and knee osteoarthritis symptoms.

Three diets, one outcome

The study, led by Dr Robert Sorge, Director of the PAIN Collective in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Psychology, involved 21 adults aged between 65 and 75 who suffered from knee OA. One group of seven were put on a low-carb diet; the others were split into a group which took part in a low-fat diet regime, while the remaining seven continued their regular diet.

Every three weeks into the 12-week study, the research team analysed the participants’ functional pain — the pain they endured while undertaking daily tasks — as well as their self-reported pain, quality of life, and level of depression. They also took blood samples and examined them for oxidative stress – the chemical imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s antioxidant properties, which is seen as a useful marker of biological ageing.

Less carbs, less pain?

The results? According to the research team, the group in the low-carb group reported a reduction in functional pain levels and levels of self-reported pain, when compared to the groups on the low-fat and regular diets. Not only that, but the participants in the low-carb diet also showed less oxidative stress and lower levels of leptin, a hormone with important metabolic functions.

“Our work shows that people can reduce their pain with a change in diet,” said Dr Sorge. “Many medications for pain cause a host of side effects that may require other drugs to reduce. The beneficial side effects of our diet may be things such as reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes and weight loss — something many drugs cannot claim.”

While it’s clear that further study is required – preferably with a much bigger sample group – I think this could be very interesting. An amazing physiotherapist I work with is on a crusade to promote low carb dieting in the recovery phase. I’m starting to wonder if cutting out the carbs and switching to low carbs such as lean meats, fish, eggs, leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, nuts, seeds, nut butter, coconut oil, olive oil, and dairy products (and even tofu and tempeh) – is the way forward, both to recommend to my patients but also to adopt myself and combat my own knee osteoarthritis.